Cellulosic ethanol technology is one of the most commonly discussed second-generation biofuel technologies worldwide. Cellulosic biofuels are derived from the cellulose in plants, some of which are being developed specifically as “energy” crops rather than for food production. These include perennial grasses and trees, such as switchgrass and Miscanthus. Crop residues, in the form of stems and leaves, represent another substantial source of cellulosic biomass.
The largest potential feedstock for ethanol is lignocellulosic biomass, which includes materials such as agricultural residues (corn stover, crop straws, husks and bagasse), herbaceous crops (alfalfa, switchgrass), short rotation woody crops, forestry residues, waste paper and other wastes (municipal and industrial). Bioethanol production from these feedstocks could be an attractive alternative for disposal of these residues. Lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks do not interfere with food security and are important for both rural and urban areas in terms of energy security reason, environmental concern, employment opportunities, agricultural development, foreign exchange saving, socioeconomic issues etc.
Production of Ethanol
The production of ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass can be achieved through two different processing routes. They are:
- Biochemical – in which enzymes and other micro-organisms are used to convert cellulose and hemicellulose components of the feedstocks to sugars prior to their fermentation to produce ethanol;
- Thermochemical – where pyrolysis/gasification technologies produce a synthesis gas (CO + H2) from which a wide range of long carbon chain biofuels, such as synthetic diesel or aviation fuel, can be reformed.
Lignocellulosic biomass consists mainly of lignin and the polysaccharides cellulose and hemicellulose. Compared with the production of ethanol from first-generation feedstocks, the use of lignocellulosic biomass is more complicated because the polysaccharides are more stable and the pentose sugars are not readily fermentable by Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
In order to convert lignocellulosic biomass to biofuels the polysaccharides must first be hydrolysed, or broken down, into simple sugars using either acid or enzymes. Several biotechnology-based approaches are being used to overcome such problems, including the development of strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that can ferment pentose sugars, the use of alternative yeast species that naturally ferment pentose sugars, and the engineering of enzymes that are able to break down cellulose and hemicellulose into simple sugars.
Ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass is produced mainly via biochemical routes. The three major steps involved are pretreatment, enzymatic hydrolysis, and fermentation. Biomass is pretreated to improve the accessibility of enzymes. After pretreatment, biomass undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis for conversion of polysaccharides into monomer sugars, such as glucose and xylose. Subsequently, sugars are fermented to ethanol by the use of different microorganisms.
Pretreated biomass can directly be converted to ethanol by using the process called simultaneous saccharification and cofermentation (SSCF). Pretreatment is a critical step which enhances the enzymatic hydrolysis of biomass. Basically, it alters the physical and chemical properties of biomass and improves the enzyme access and effectiveness which may also lead to a change in crystallinity and degree of polymerization of cellulose. The internal surface area and pore volume of pretreated biomass are increased which facilitates substantial improvement in accessibility of enzymes. The process also helps in enhancing the rate and yield of monomeric sugars during enzymatic hydrolysis steps.
Pretreatment of Lignocellulosic Biomass
Pretreatment methods can be broadly classified into four groups – physical, chemical, physio-chemical and biological. Physical pretreatment processes employ the mechanical comminution or irradiation processes to change only the physical characteristics of biomass. The physio-chemical process utilizes steam or steam and gases, like SO2 and CO2.
The chemical processes employs acids (H2SO4, HCl, organic acids etc) or alkalis (NaOH, Na2CO3, Ca(OH)2, NH3 etc). The acid treatment typically shows the selectivity towards hydrolyzing the hemicelluloses components, whereas alkalis have better selectivity for the lignin. The fractionation of biomass components after such processes help in improving the enzymes accessibility which is also important to the efficient utilization of enzymes.
The major cost components in bioethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass are the pretreatment and the enzymatic hydrolysis steps. In fact, these two process are someway interrelated too where an efficient pretreatment strategy can save substantial enzyme consumption. Pretreatment step can also affect the cost of other operations such as size reduction prior to pretreatment. Therefore, optimization of these two important steps, which collectively contributes about 70% of the total processing cost, are the major challenges in the commercialization of bioethanol from 2nd generation feedstock.